Citrus Beginnings

[Originally published in Orange Countiana XI (2015)] 

Who planted the first orange tree in Orange County?

It is perhaps not the most important question in our history, but if it deserves an answer at all it deserves a correct one. A good historian should always be careful with their adjectives, and “first” can be a particularly dangerous one.

You will often hear it said that Dr. William N. Hardin of Anaheim planted the first oranges in what is now Orange County. Leo Friis, in his classic book Orange County Through Four Centuries, writes:

Dr. W.N. Hardin of Anaheim is credited with setting out the first orange grove in Orange County. In 1870 he procured two barrels of decayed Tahiti oranges from which he extracted the seeds and planted them in beds. Soon he had a large number of flourishing seedlings and for several years he enjoyed a lucrative business of selling young trees.[1]

Notice that Dr. Friis was careful to say that Hardin “is credited” with this distinction (by whom, or when he does not say).

Dr. Hardin (1826-1897) was Anaheim’s second physician, arriving in the late 1860s. In 1894 he was interviewed by a reporter for the Santa Ana Blade, who explained:

Besides doing a large medical practice, Dr. Hardin got the cream of the early nursery business in this neighborhood when he got a couple of barrels of Tahiti oranges which he mashed down and planted in beds in his city lot in Anaheim at a time when the orange growing business was first beginning to be talked up. At the time there was not an orange bearing orchard south of Los Angeles except a few trees in Max Stobel’s yard at Anaheim and one old tree on the Bush and Watson place at Burruel Point, now Olive. The tree was planted many years ago by the Mexicans, and, we believe, is still thrifty.

Dr. Hardin raised seedling orange trees by the thousands at comparatively little expense and he just hit the market right.

During the seventies he sold quantities of young trees at $3 to $4 a piece. He had a practical monopoly of the market here for three or four years as the nearest place besides his where stock was procurable was Garey’s nursery at Los Angeles.[2]

Thus Dr. Hardin himself admits his were not the first local trees. So what of the other two contenders he names?

Now in 1965, when Dr. Friis wrote his book, he did not yet have access to the early files of the Anaheim Gazette, the area’s first newspaper which began publication in October 1870. There we find some valuable contemporary information.

On September 23, 1871, the Gazette reported that Dr. Hardin had planted ten barrels of decayed oranges last spring – presumably the spring of 1871, not 1870 – and already had 8,000 young trees growing. On January 27, 1874 the Gazette reported that Dr. Hardin had just sold 1,200 three-year-old orange trees, which also suggests an 1871 planting.

But also in 1871 we already find advertisements offering orange trees for sale. On January 21, 1871 Theodore Schmidt offered orange and lemon trees from his Anaheim nursery. Three weeks later (February 11, 1871), Columbus Tustin advertised orange trees for sale at Tustin City.

And sure enough we find on December 9, 1871 that “The orange trees in Mr. Strobel’s orchard are hanging full of golden fruit, we think the most beautiful in the world.” His trees must have been several years old to already have fruit on them – probably at least three or four years old. This still doesn’t tell us exactly when they were planted though, because orange trees were usually started in seed beds (as Dr. Hardin did) and only later transplanted to the fields, so the young trees could have been started elsewhere.[3]

So much for Anaheim . . . now what about Olive?

The Los Angeles County tax rolls for 1868-69 show Desiderio Burruel assessed for not one, but three orange trees (along with a good many other plantings). These must have been old enough to be producing trees at the time to make it on the tax rolls. Burruel, the son-in-law of Teodosio Yorba, lived up on the hill at Olive Heights. A correspondent for the Anaheim Gazette visited in 1878 and noticed several old orange trees in the area:

I recently visited the ranch of Messrs. Wakefield and Barr in Olive district, about 3 miles from Anaheim, and while there was shown an orange tree of huge dimensions. This tree measures 45 inches in circumference a foot from the ground, and the year before last produced over 3,000 oranges. It is said to be about 40 years of age and bids fair to live many years more. I could not help admiring its great size and fine, healthy appearance…. This place is known as Olive ranch and on it is located the old Santa Ana house which still is in very good condition and is used by the owners as a residence….

Adjoining this place is the ranch of Mr. F.G. Mitchell, commonly known as the Alfalfa Dairy Ranch. On the fine, balmy morning that I visited this place, I found Mr. Mitchell at home, and he kindly showed me about and gave me all the information in his power. This ranch was settled over 75 years ago by Teodocio Yorba, and was afterwards known as the Burruel rancho. The old adobe house is yet standing and is used as a dwelling house, but it bears the marks of wear and age. I first examined the trees, which were planted many years ago by Spaniards who formerly lived here, and which have attained great size. An olive tree measures nearly five feet in circumference, and a fig tree nearly as much. There are seven large orange trees which bear heavily every year….”[4]

The tree on the Bush and Watson place must have been quite impressive. Around 1880, Alfred Chapman (one of the founders of Orange) stated that “there are no older trees in the state than there on that piece. It is a matter of tradition that the oldest orange tree in the state is upon that tract. The fruit trees are the largest I have seen, and the land must be quite extra[-ordinary?].”[5]

While the reporter for the Blade suggested that the old tree was “still thrifty” in 1894, E.C. Conger, who settled just below the hill five years earlier, later told historian Terry Stephenson: “When I came here in 1889, there were some old Australian navel trees between where my house now stands and the railroad tracks. I have no knowledge of any old orange trees such as you describe.”[6]

Even if the huge orange tree at “the old Santa Ana house” (presumably the Tomás Yorba adobe; later the Bush and Watson place) was only 30 years old in 1878, instead of 40, that would still mean it was planted in the 1840s.

So now we’ve pushed our earliest orange trees back into Mexican times and the Days of the Dons. The Yorbas, in fact, were noted for their early agricultural efforts at a time when many of their fellow rancheros raised almost nothing but cattle and horses on their vast ranchos.

Bernardo Yorba, whose rancho was spread out across the rolling hills on the north side of the Santa Ana Canyon, did his share to earn the family’s agricultural reputation. Dr. Friis learned of this sometime after Through Four Centuries was published. In a 1973 pamphlet he explained:

The first orange grove in what is now Orange County was planted on Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana granted to Don Bernardo Yorba in 1835. During the flood of 1868 messengers from the Yorba ranch warned the Anaheim settlers of impending disaster. Henry Kroeger and two other townsmen rode up to the ranch and witnessed the angry waters of the Santa Ana River swirling and cutting into the bank near the Yorba orange grove. Trees about to topple into the stream were lassoed by cowboys, dragged up to higher ground, and immediately replanted.[7]

This was apparently not the only early orange grove in the canyon. An advertisement in the Anaheim Gazette in 1875 offers a 52-acre ranch for sale on the Santa Ana River, about four miles from Anaheim. It had a 20-year-old orange grove, plus figs, peaches, apples, apricots, and other fruits.[8]

Four miles suggests this 1850s grove may not have been on Bernardo Yorba’s old rancho, but instead on the Ontiveros family’s Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana. In that case, it is probably worth noting that Juan Pacifico Ontiveros’ son-in-law, August Langenberger, who lived on the rancho in the 1850s, has also been credited with planting the first orange trees in Anaheim.[9]

But where did the Yorbas (and Ontiveroses?) get their trees?

While there may have been a few trees planted here and there, the first orange grove in California is generally agreed to have been set out at Mission San Gabriel around 1804. In the 1830s and ‘40s it provided the stock for several other pioneer groves in the Los Angeles area. It could easily have been the source of the Yorbas’ trees.

But what about our own mission at San Juan Capistrano?

It would not have been unusual for there to have been oranges or other citrus trees planted at Mission San Juan Capistrano during its heyday, but so far no mention of them seems to have come to light.

The earliest reference appears to be John Hittel’s Resources of California (1863), which mentions the orange trees planted by the padres at several of the old missions, including San Juan Capistrano.[10]

Not an eyewitness, contemporary account to be sure. But the fact that Capistrano is specifically mentioned suggests that there may have still been some old trees growing there at the time. And so it may be to the padres that Orange County owes its first oranges.

Leaving that issue for future research, let us turn to another, more practical question.

In his recent overview of Orange County’s citrus industry, Richard Barker notes: “Just who planted the first single tree is totally irrelevant when one is looking at the formation of an industry. The important question is who had the foresight to plant citrus on a commercial scale?”[11]

Barker then states that Patterson Bowers planted the first local orange grove in 1873 on two acres east of Orange. As we have seen, that’s not quite correct, but it is still significant.

In 1880, Patterson Bowers (1825-1898) claimed to have planted the first orange grove in what is now the City of Orange. The seeds had been started in nursery rows in 1871, and transplanted to his orchard two years later. Bowers bought 40 acres there in June 1872, and built “a very fine residence” that summer. His ranch was located at the east end of Walnut Street, where it meets the Santiago Creek. Because orange trees take several years to mature, Bowers’ first crop was not harvested until 1879. During the 1880 season, he expected to pack about 200 boxes.[12]

“Uncle Pat” Bowers (as he was known) reportedly started off with Australian navels, a winter-ripening fruit. C.E. Parker, who planted his first oranges around 1875, later recalled:

“We knew the Australian Navel and budded a good deal to them, but the Australian Navels were a coarse fruit and being big, blew off of the trees easily. At first, though, it was popular because it was thrifty and looked good.”

“There was no such thing here as Valencia oranges,” Parker added. “We thought a great deal of the Mediterranean Sweets in those days, and grew a good many. But the trees were not very thrifty, and did not make big trees.”[13] Other popular early varieties were Malta bloods and St. Michaels. But as longtime Placentia grower George Key explained: “The Malta Blood did not have much appeal because the meat had blotches of red that looked like blood stains. The St. Michaels were small with a lot of seeds.”[14]

As with most local crops, farmers learned by trial and error what oranges would do the best here and bring the best returns.

One of the early experimenters was Richard H. Gilman (1845-1942). In 1872 he came to the Placentia area as superintendent of the Southern California Semi-Tropical Fruit Company, a group of Sonoma County investors who had decided to take a chance on Southern California agriculture. An 1874 feature in the Southern Californian (an alternate name for the Anaheim Gazette) explained:

The object of the organization was to raise semi-tropical fruits, and the fundamental principles upon which the members of the association relied for success, were unit and co-operation…. As soon as Mr. Gilman was chosen to conduct the management of the Company’s affairs, he set forth during the Fall of 1872 on a tour of investigation through the southern country in order to selected the most eligible site for the future semi-tropical orchard. Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Riverside and San Diego were visited and critically examined, but at none of these places were there found so many natural advantages as existed, though in a dormant state, in the vicinity of Anaheim…. In January of the following year he commenced active operations upon the Company’s purchase. Work has been going on, therefore, about thirteen months, and … there are now set out and growing upon the farm six hundred orange and lime trees, now four years old. These trees were irrigated by means of an elevated tank and force pumps, it being impractical to obtain water for irrigating purposes from the Santa Ana river. The Company purchased last year, and have now in Los Angeles, subject to order, seven thousand orange, lemon and lime trees, three years old. Of this number, Mr. Gilman will, during the coming month, set out two thousand, his preparations for so doing having been completed. As we understand from him, his Company are perfectly satisfied with their location, and with the progress that has been made under existing circumstances. They believe that they have secured land in the best portion of Southern California….[15]

Gilman initially planted the varieties most popular at the time – including Mediterranean Sweets, St. Michaels (St. Mikes, as he liked to call them), and Malta bloods, along with lemons and limes. He also planted barley, which was the only cash crop for the first few years.

Then in 1880, he decided to give a new, summer-ripening orange a try, and budded five acres of seedling trees to Valencia oranges.

The Valencia oranges came from Spain, and had first been introduced to Southern California in the 1870s by Alfred Beck Chapman – not on his property at Orange, but on his ranch near San Gabriel. Gilman reportedly bought his Valencia buds direct from Chapman.

“At first other growers did not think that people would buy oranges in the summer when so much other fruit was ripe,” Placentia historian Virginia Carpenter noted, “but this was not so.”[16] In fact, the Valencias did so well here that by the early 1900s they had all but replaced every other variety.[17] By the time Richard Gilman resigned as ranch superintendent in 1906, Valencias were all he grew.[18]

Another Chapman also made his mark in the Valencia industry – Charles C. Chapman (1853-1944), who bought a ranch south of Gilman in 1894. At the time, the property featured the typical 19th century varieties – Washington and Australian navels, Mediterranean Sweets, St. Michael’s, Malta Bloods – and ten acres of Valencias, said to have been another early planting from A.B. Chapman’s trees. Their fruit, C.C. Chapman recalled, was “solid, juicy, long-keeping, and delicious.”[19]

Chapman (and others) found that Valencias thrived in our local soil and climate. They also could be left hanging ripe on the trees for weeks; the harvest season sometimes lasting from April or May on into November.

Where the earliest growers focused much of their attention on identifying successful varieties and developing profitable farming techniques, Chapman made his mark in sales and marketing. He emphasized not just high quality, but dependable quality. His “Old Mission” brand Valencia oranges were sold throughout the United States and always attracted high prices. He was sometimes called the Orange King of California, or the Father of the Valencia Orange Industry.[20]

“The methods of handling oranges were very crude and simple at first,” he later wrote.

There was no uniformity of pack, or any method in general adopted by the early growers and packers. The only thought seemingly in the mind of the shipper was to get the fruit in some sort of package in order to ship to the consumer….

Soon, however, enterprising shippers began to realize that if the fruit was uniformly sized it would pack more evenly and be more attractive…. Uniform packages have been adopted for both the orange and the lemon. These are embellished with lettering and designs printed in colors on slats and ends. Shippers have individual brands, and most shippers use elaborate and beautifully colored lithographic labels of these on the end of the boxes. The orange wrappers have also been changed from the coarse brown paper [of the early days] to fine silk tissue, upon which richly colored designs or monograms are printed…. Thus we have now going from all our packing houses uniform and attractive packages.[21]

Chapman approached the whole venture as a businessman. He never joined any of the cooperative citrus associations (such as Sunkist), but felt he could earn greater returns packing his own fruit and shipping it independently. As early as 1900 he had his own private packing house on his ranch. Later he built a modern packing house along the railroad line which ran just south of his property. He and his family packed their fruit there until 1949.

“The culture of the orange is one of the most fascinating branches of agriculture,” Chapman told a group of growers in 1913. “This fruit perhaps requires closer and more constant attention than any other fruit grown for profit in this country….

While orange culture is fascinating few men are undergoing all the disappointments and annoyances incident to the business these days for the mere pleasure they derive from it. It is profit rather than pleasure which is the incentive to practically all growers….

The quality of the fruit we produce will largely gauge the financial returns enjoyed. The orange … is susceptible of high development, and I believe there is [no] excuse for one of us to grow an inferior orange….[22]

The richness of Orange County’s climate, the efforts of hundreds of determined growers, an army of creative inventors and scientists, and endless marketing kept our county at the forefront of the citrus industry for more than half a century. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, but quite a bit can come from a few little orange seeds as well.


[1] Friis, Orange County Through Four Centuries (Santa Ana: Pioneer Press, 1965), p 79. For a brief biography of Dr. Hardin, see C.D. Ball, Orange County Medical History (Santa Ana: A.G. Flagg, 1926) p 34.

[2] Santa Ana Blade, November 17, 1894. At the close of 1871, Los Angeles County (which still included today’s Orange County) had 34,000 orange trees and 3,700 lemon trees – and 4,137,400 grape vines (Los Angeles Star, January 16, 1873).

[3] Strobel (d 1873) was a colorful character to say the least. He served as first Mayor of Anaheim, led our first county division drive, published his own newspaper, and was involved in any number of real estate schemes.

[4] Anaheim Semi-Weekly Gazette, April 20, 1878; the article is signed “Croydon,” the pen-name of E.F. Webber, who taught in several local school districts in the 1870s.

[5] Transcript on Appeal … The Anaheim Water Co. … vs. The Semi-Tropical Water Co. (1883) p 442. About that same time, a newspaper correspondent from Orange imagined the venerable tree was about 80 years old, and “had withstood the ‘Santa Anas’ of half a century when gold was discovered in California.” His measurements are hopefully more reliable, showing the tree as 28 feet tall and 44 inches around at the base of the trunk. It had borne some 5,000 oranges that last season, and was in full bloom in January, but since had been “greatly neglected and will hardly bear so many this year.” Riverside Press & Horticulturalist, April 10, May 8, 1880. John Bush, Jonathan Watson, and their families were among the first Anglo settlers in the Olive area, arriving in 1869.

[6] Stephenson, Don Bernardo Yorba, Los Angeles: Glen Dawson (1941), p 95-96. Teodocio’s adobe was just north of where Conger built his home in 1889, and was “at that time fast going down, surrounded by weeds and disorder.”

[7] Leo J. Friis, “Orange Culture in Orange County,” Santa Ana: Pioneer Press, [1973]. The San Bernardino Guardian (January 25, 1868) reported that a 35-year-old orange orchard and vineyard belonging to the Yorbas was destroyed recently by flooding along the Santa Ana River.

[8] Gazette, July 10, 1875. The ranch was then owned by A.L. Sutton.

[9] Amalie Frohling, one of the first settlers in Anaheim, recalled in her 1914 memoirs: "Mr. A. Langenberger was the first that planted orange trees on his ranch. Presumably she meant his ranch on the Anaheim townsite. "Memoirs of Amalie Hammes Frohling (unpublished typescript, Anaheim Public Library).

[10] John S. Hittel, Resources of California (San Francisco: A. Roman & Co., 1863), p 191.

[11] Barker, Citrus Powered the Economy of Orange County for over a half century Induced by “a Romance” An Illustrated, Compelling History…, ([Balboa]: Citrus Roots - Preserving Citrus Heritage Foundation, 2009), p 10.

[12] History of Los Angeles County, California (Oakland: Thompson & West, 1880), p 175.

[13] T.E. Stephenson, "Early History of Navels in County Told," Santa Ana Register, February 7, 1921.

[14] George G. Key, Early Placentia, Its Background and Settlers, Development, Schools and Memories (Anaheim: Orange County Board of Supervisors, 1986), p 149.

[15] Southern Californian, January 31, 1874. The company (later known as the Placentia Fruit Company) bought 110 acres at $17.50 an acre. Despite the name, the property is now in the City of Fullerton, and is part of the southern end of the Cal State Fullerton campus.

[16] Carpenter, Placentia, A Pleasant Place (Santa Ana: Pioneer Press, 1977), p 75. Even in the early years, almost all varieties of oranges were grown on different root stock. The “sour” stock was more resistant to disease, but produced poor fruit, so “sweet” varieties were “budded” to the sour stock by grafting the buds to the young trees.

[17] In 1923 there were 40,000 acres of Valencia oranges in Orange County, and only 3,000 acres of navels. The Riverside area continued to grow winter-ripening oranges – notably the Washington navel – with great success.

[18] For more on Dick Gilman, see Frances Bowen (ed), Colby’s Pond and the Golden Gate (Albuquerque: Kumquat Press, 1978), Helen Gilman Bowen, Mt. Shasta or Bust (Los Angeles: The Plantin Press, 1978), and George G. Key, “Placentia Pioneers: Wrights, Gilmans & Keys,” Orange Countiana Vol. 2 (1980). Key was Gilman’s nephew, and his father ran the ranch while Gilman was out of the area in the late 1890s.

[19] Donald H. Pflueger (ed) Charles C. Chapman, The Career of a Creative Californian, 1853-1944 (Los Angeles: Anderson, Ritchie & Simon, 1976), p 86. C.C. Chapman was also the first mayor of Fullerton, and the namesake of Chapman University in Orange. The two Chapmans – Alfred and Charles – were not related.

[20] While Chapman is sometimes described as an “orange millionaire,” the discovery of oil on one of his other Placentia area ranches in 1919 did much to enhance his financial status.

[21] Samuel Armor, History of Orange County (Los Angeles: Historic Record Co., 1911), p 72.

[22] Orange Daily News, March 7, 1913.